I’ve been to a number of countries in the Middle East now (the UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia), and as I said in one of my posts about Saudi, the region has carved out a little space in my heart. There’s something about the heat and the smell of the desert, the spaciousness and the hospitality of (most of!) the people that’s wonderful. It’s a region much maligned and much misunderstood, and I think, as with any travel, many people would be surprised by what they might find if they visited (check out my friend Niall’s post on 10 days in Iran for example).
Earlier this year, I visited Oman for the first time, and I’ll admit I expected it to be just like the countries that surround it, full of new-ish cities of metal and glass, shopping centres, and expanses of flat and featureless desert.
I was wrong…
Combining Work and Fun
I went to deliver some work, as has been the catalyst for all of my trips to the region in the last few years, but to my delight, this time a very good friend, Ed, was also visiting the country. Ed, another Brit, is someone I’ve known for more than ten years, who lives in the UK. He’s been working on a project in Oman for the last couple of years, and goes out there once a month (he has even more air miles than me!), and so knows Muscat very well. He’d even arranged to stay in the same hotel as me, which unfortunately for him meant he had to slum it in the Holiday Inn, a ‘dry’ (no alcohol) hotel. I found the hotel clean, with a good set up and a handy desk (it’s crazy how often the desk in hotels is rubbish for actually working at).
It’s rare that any of my work trips these days involve seeing friends, so spending a couple of evenings with him was lovely. Both our clients wanted us to finish early, so we were able to meet at a very reasonable 5pm.
The first evening he had two colleagues with him, and we went to a Lebanese Restaurant at The Wave, which is an area of Muscat that has shops, restaurants, a hotel, a Marina, office etc. The food was delicious, really fresh, with plenty of vegetarian options.
The highlight of the trip for me was visiting the site of Ed’s project, The Oman Botanic Gardens, and then heading out to a Wadi. The Gardens are a wonderful and ambitious project which hope to represent the diversity of Oman’s plants and landscapes in one place. It will eventually be one of the largest gardens in the world, although at the moment the site is pretty bare. I’m excited to see it when it’s open in a few years. Even without any plants or buildings the landscape is stunning.
We then headed to Al Khoud Wadi (a Wadi is a ravine or valley that’s dry apart from during the rainy season). We drove there in the 4×4 Ed had hired, and went off-road. It was great fun, bouncing through the desert with the most striking and beautiful scenery all around us. It felt like there was a lot more to the desert in Oman than many of the places I have been in the middle east (although, it’s not like I’ve been everywhere, so forgive me if you’re from the ME and you have a wonderful desert of your own!), but there were plenty of plants and birds if you took the time to look.
For dinner, Ed introduced me to the most amazing restaurant, at the luxury hotel The Chedi. We ate outside at ‘The Restaurant’ (yes, that’s what it’s called) on the sizeable outdoor patio. For much of the year it’s 40 degrees plus in Oman, so I imagine that outside area is often deserted, but in February the temperature was lovely, and it felt like sitting outside in the European summer, positively balmy. I had mostly Indian food, though there were a number of cuisines on offer.
We also had a drive round at night, and headed to Muhtrah Corniche, where we took a look at the Al Said yacht, which belongs to the Sultan Qaboos of Oman, and is the world’s most powerful and ‘highest displacement super-yacht.’ It can carry 70 guests – and 150 staff! We also drove past the market, Mutrah Souq, a traditional Arabic market which if you’re in the city and haven’t been to an Arabic market before, would be worth a visit.
Hanging Out with LocalsI had quite a lot of interaction with Omani residents on the trip. I was running a course in a local organisation (the course was in English, and everyone’s English was excellent), and it was an interesting one – the group were simultaneously some of the loveliest people I’ve trained, and also completely hopeless in terms of getting themselves all in the room at the same time so I could deliver the course content. There was almost always – during five days – someone missing, or taking a call, or popping to a meeting. It’s interesting to me how much more relaxed and flexible I am when I run a course now as to when I was in the UK. It’s a case of adapt or go crazy…
The people I met were highly educated, from the people on my course to my first taxi driver, who spoke very good English. Actually, I did have one strange experience with a taxi driver, who asked me where I was from, and when I said Thailand, told me all about a friend’s weird and explicit sexual adventures in Thailand. This was quite a surprise as Oman is reasonably conservative, and I haven’t experienced much of that kind of inappropriate sexual stuff anywhere except Egypt. It wasn’t very comfortable, and if you’re a single woman in Oman I would suggest you are careful about the taxis you take (though I picked this one up at the airport, so it was legit!).
In terms of the implications of being a woman there, I dressed (as people almost always ask me what I wear in Muslim countries) conservatively, which means no vest tops or short skirts/shorts, but there was no need to cover up fully. There were very few women on my flight from Kuwait to Oman however, which always feels a bit strange.
Taking My Leave
I’ve recommended Oman to several friends since then, and would definitely say if you’re in the area for a layover, take a few days to explore Muscat and the landscape.
Leaving Oman I had a strong sense that I’d like to return one day as a tourist, or at least spend more time there after a work trip. It’s not something I usually feel when I visit its neighbours – I enjoy my visits, but am usually happy to leave when it’s done.
Of course, the upgrade on the way home definitely helped me to feel better about going home!